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The Neighborhood (Americas)by Goncalo M. Tavares
By the time Gonçalo Tavares's dark, stirring 2004 novel Jerusalem came to American audiences in 2009, the Portuguese writer had already won a number of prestigious international prizes. With three-quarters of his acclaimed Kingdom series ("O Reino") now available in English (after Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique and Joseph Walser's Machine were published in 2011 and 2012, respectively), stateside readers have been able to espy but a portion of Tavares's abundant talents. The Neighborhood, while offering further demonstrative proof of his literary prowess, could not be more dissimilar in style, form, and tone than the three novels that preceded it in translation.
The Neighborhood series ("O Bairro"), begun in 2002, is an ambitious attempt to populate a fictional community with stories about, or in homage to, some of the world's most important writers (as well as, perhaps, the occasional artist and architect). These stories are not biographical per se but instead nestle themselves within the style and conception we have of these writers from reading their popular books ("to a certain extent their personalities work within the perimeters of what we think we know of those writers and, more important, of their writing"). Currently inhabited by 10 residents, Tavares's neighborhood is apparently set to proliferate as long as its progenitor continues to write fiction. Published as slim, single volumes in Portugal, The Neighborhood collects six of the 10 tales that Tavares has written over the course of the past decade. "Mister Valéry," "Mister Calvino," "Mister Juarroz," "Mister Henri," "Mister Kraus," and "Mister Walser" are the included selections, with "O Senhor Brecht," "O Senhor Breton," "O Senhor Swedenborg," and "O Senhor Eliot" having been left out.
"Mister Valéry," the French poet-philosopher, is characterized as a solitary, quirky figure enraptured by his own unique blend of logical illogic (or is it illogical logic?) as it pertains to the objects he encounters in everyday life.
The only chance that truth has of surviving is to multiply itself. If there is only one single truth, then lies can be all those billions of possibilities that remain. Thus it would be impossible to discover the truth: a miraculous chance; whereas lies, on the contrary, would always be around us.
"Mister Calvino," the incomparable Italian novelist, fabulist, and short-story writer, as one would expect, exhibits a most unique and curious way of viewing the world.
He again looked at the shelf and at the faded covers and, suddenly, it was as though everything had become clear: the origin of the phenomenon, the true reasons for the happening that someone would have classified, at first glance, as a chemical happening. But it wasn't as simple as that. Calvino was not merely dealing with a change in substances, this was a force, a strong force that almost had fragile muscles. And this insufficient force originated from the sun: the sun wanted to open the books, it concentrated its rays, with all its might, on the cover of a book because it wanted to open it, it wanted to see the first page, to read, to reflect upon great phrases, to be moved by poems. The sun simply wanted to read, it yearned to do so like a child who was about to enter school.
"Mister Juarroz," the Argentine poet best known for his collections of vertical poetry, is enamored by shadows, the spaces between things, order, and the nature of reality and perception.
Mister Juarroz imagined a watch that instead of showing the time would depict space. A watch where the large hand would indicate on a map the exact location where a person was at any given moment.
"Mister Henri" (as in Michaux), was a Belgian-born French poet and painter, whom Tavares portrays as interested in both mathematics and inventions — when he is not consumed with his one true interest, absinthe. Though he offers myriad "encyclopedic dissertations" on a variety of subjects, he only does so while being fed a steady stream of his green-tinted beverage of choice. "Another glass of absinthe, my dear sir!"
"The best thing to do would be to gather all these facts and events into a book, and then reduce this book to half its size, and so forth, until one managed to condense all the knowledge of this world into a sentence of ten words. Then all of us would learn just that one sentence and we would then have time to seriously enjoy ourselves drinking glasses of absinthe, one after another, just like the gods recommend."
Karl Kraus, the Austrian satirist, reports in "Mister Kraus" on the run-up and aftermath of a local election. The send-up of politics, democracy, and the quest for power exposes the folly (and unintended humor) of leaders and their sycophantic assistants.
"It's child's play," said Mister Kraus. "When politicians speak to us from the heavens above, and point their fingers upward saying, see?, it's then, at that precise moment, that we should be looking attentively at the objects they have in their cellars."
Finally we encounter "Mister Walser," the enigmatic Swiss writer known for his long and solitary walks. Walser lives on the outskirts of Tavares's neighborhood, away from the rest of his fictional community. He is overjoyed by the prospects of his new home, and the secluded luxury it affords - only to find it overrun by some unexpected guests.
It is said that this expectation of creating a personal space where it was possible to simply talk with other men, argue, discuss large or small ideas, matters that are of interest to countries or continents and matters that are of interest only to the neighboring community, this underlying anxiety behind a rational climate of sociability, should not be confused with a stupid and unconscious surrender to the shapeless noise of a city.
Why Texas Tech University Press decided to only publish six of the 10 works that comprise (thus far) The Neighborhood series is unknown — but this handsome edition is a welcome introduction nonetheless. According to at least one version of Tavares's Neighborhood map, his fictional precinct could well become a literary paradise, as another 30 or so inhabitants seem to have taken up residence (including the likes of Borges, Melville, Rimbaud, Proust, Orwell, Voltaire, Joyce, Beckett, Kafka, Pessoa, Gogol, García Lorca, Woolf, Musil, Cortázar, Mishima, and many others). Whether Tavares ends up writing tales for all of these newly settled denizens remains to be seen, but for the sheer scope and ingenuity of the project alone (as well as for its early successes), Tavares is deserving of both praise and admiration.
Given the existential darkness revealed by Tavares throughout his Kingdom series, the playful, often humorous nature of The Neighborhood may well come as a surprise to many readers. To think that Tavares is but a quarter of the way through his planned series is quite remarkable, especially given how fantastic these initial six entries are. If Saramago's now infamous prognostication that Gonçalo Tavares will one day win the Nobel Prize comes true, it will be on the vast talents he has brought to an enviable breadth of work (that also includes poetry, drama, essays, short stories, and maybe even a children's book). The varied literary stylings to be found in The Neighborhood make evident that Tavares is rather comfortable (and adept!) at writing within any number of forms. He is not only one of Portugal's or Europe's greatest living writers but also one of the most exciting writers at work anywhere on the international stage today.
The Neighborhood's introductory essay, written by Philip Graham, provides a worthwhile background on both Tavares himself and the Neighborhood books in general. Rachel Caiano, Tavares's wife, drew the work's illustrations (which, too, differ in style depending on the author being imagined). The six books selected for inclusion were translated from Portuguese by Roopanjali Roy.
Synopses & Reviews
Imagine you could create your own utopian writers' quarter—a close-knit community of those you admire or who have influenced you profoundly. For award-winning Portuguese author Gonçalo M. Tavares, six favorite senhores —“Misters” Calvino, Valéry, Juarroz, Kraus, Walser, and Henri—haunt the sidewalks, cafes, and back alleys of a fictive Lisbon bairro.
Readers will appreciate the homages to Italian fabulist Italo Calvino, French poet and critic Paul Valéry, Argentinean poet Roberto Juarroz, Swiss modernist Robert Walser, Austrian writer and satirist Karl Kraus, and Belgian neosurrealist Henri Michaux, but Tavares’s deceptively simple style appeals on many levels. In this imaginative territory, for instance, diminutive Mister Valéry jumps up and down—satisfied to be as tall as his fellow men if “only for a shorter while.” His more egocentric neighbor, Mister Henri, philosophizes about the virtues of absinthe, acknowledging the drink can make equally for a better or worse reality.
Enhancing each story are the drawings of Rachel Caiano, whose minimalist depictions mirror the essence of the personal, logical, and political absurdities that intrigue in these simple yet profound tales.
When we visit Tavares’s neighborhood, its building blocks made of books, we are also visiting a version of ourselves. —Philip Graham, from the foreword
If a writers quarter existed without regard to the bounds of space and time, it would surely be inhabited by the senhores of Gonçalo M. Tavaress playful imagination, of whom six reside in proximity here: Mr. Calvino, Mr. Valéry, Mr. Juarroz, Mr. Kraus, Mr. Walser, and Mr. Henri.It is not lost on readers of literature and philosophy, of course, that these characters share the names of illustrious authors and thinkers. But their stories demand of the reader no prior knowledge; instead, Tavares employs riddles and word play to enlighten and surprise. Charmingly enhanced by Rachel Caianos minimalist drawings, these vignettes reveal the authors intellectual universe and personal points of view.
About the Author
A professor of epistemology at the University of Lisbon, Gonçalo M. Tavares won the 2005 José Saramago Prize for young writers.
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